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Standing Committee Debates
Child Support, Pensions and Social Security Bill

Child Support, Pensions and Social Security Bill

Standing Committee F

Tuesday 1 February 2000

(Afternoon)

[Mr. Jim Cunningham in the Chair]

Child Support, Pensions and Social Security Bill

Clause 5

Departure from usual rules for calculating maintenance

Amendment proposed [this day]: No. 128, in page 6, leave out line 9 and insert—

    `(c) that the non-resident parent could not in any event benefit from the effect of any variation which the Secretary of State might make'.

4.30 pm

Question again proposed, That the amendment be made.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Social Security (Angela Eagle): It falls to me, Mr. Cunningham, to welcome you to the Chair for the first time in our proceedings, which I do unreservedly.

Amendment No. 128 deals with the grounds on which preliminary appeals for variations may be dealt with. I have spoken about the situation regarding non-resident parents, and will now move on to say how variation applications from parents with care will be considered. We will quickly reject applications from parents with care, if they have no possibility of success. For instance, if the non-resident parent were in receipt of income support or income-based jobseeker's allowance and were, therefore, liable for the minimum amount, a variation would be irrelevant to the final outcome. We envisage that that sort of case will be rejected at the preliminary stage before the whole variation procedure is invoked.

As the details of variation arrangements are developed in regulations and operating procedures, no doubt we will identify other cases in which it is clear at the outset that a variation should not be allowed. Committees often debate whether measures should be included in Bills or in secondary regulations. Our view is that, in this case, to require all the relevant criteria to be spelled out in the Bill would be too rigid an approach. We believe that it is preferable for the grounds for rejection to be prescribed in regulations, which will provide the necessary flexibility. For those reasons, I ask the Committee to reject the amendment.

Mr. Eric Pickles (Brentwood and Ongar): I have listened to what the Minister has said and believe that she is wrong to think that those measures should not be included in the Bill. However, I am prepared to give the hon. Lady the benefit of the doubt, and I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Mr. Pickles: I beg to move amendment No 129, in page 6, line 18, leave out `one of the conditions' and insert

    `the condition'.

The Chairman: With this we may consider amendment No. 130, in page 6, line 21, leave out from `The' to end of line 28 and insert

    `condition is that the non-resident parent must make payments at the rate of—

    (a) £30 per week where there is one qualifying child;

    (b) £40 per week where there are two qualifying children; and

    (c) £50 per week where there are three or more qualifying children'.

Mr. Pickles: It was rude of me not to welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Cunningham. You have joined the Committee at an interesting time, and I am sure that you will enjoy our deliberations.

The amendments are straightforward. If an application for variation were made and the Secretary of State concluded, after preliminary assessment, that there was some merit in the application, the non-resident parent would still have to pay either the full rate or a lower rate, at the Secretary of State's discretion. Given that the new variation scheme is being introduced because the existing formula may not be fair, it seems right that that parent should have to pay only the default rate until the appeal is determined.

Angela Eagle: Amendments Nos. 129 and 130 relate to the intention to allow the Secretary of State, in appropriate circumstances, to require the non-resident parent who has applied for a variation to make regular payments of child support at a pre-agreed level as a condition of having his application considered. Similar provisions apply in relation to the existing departure scheme in the current Act. It may be helpful if I explain the background.

Unlike under the existing departure scheme, under the Bill applicants will be able to apply for a variation before, as well as after, a final maintenance calculation has been made. If a variation application is made before a decision has been reached on the original maintenance application, the Secretary of State may either make a final maintenance calculation, which takes account of the outcome of the variation application, or an interim maintenance decision based on the normal calculation rules without a variation—for example, where he is unable to clear the variation application promptly because further investigation is needed before a decision can be made.

Where an interim decision is made, new section 28C provides that the non-resident parent applicant may be required to make regular payments of maintenance while his application is being considered. The intention is that, in those circumstances, the amount payable will be either the full amount of the existing interim rate—where the reasonable expectation is that the variation application, once processed, will not succeed—or a lower rate. The lower rate will be prescribed and will take account of what the rate would be if the variation application were successful.

The intention is to ensure that child support continues to flow while a variation application is being considered, but it is only right that the amount payable should be set at a reasonable rate. However, the amendments would require the non-resident parent to make regular payments at one of three fixed rates, based on the number of qualifying children. That approach takes no account of either the actual maintenance calculation, based on the information provided by the non-resident parent, or the anticipated amount payable, if variation is allowed. In fact, it is likely to bear little or no relationship to either.

That is certain to lead to discontent. Not only would it unfairly penalise non-resident parents with lower assessments but, perversely, it might encourage those with higher assessments to apply for a variation on wholly spurious grounds, simply as a means of securing a temporary reduction in the amount that they must pay. The approach that we are taking mirrors the provisions in the existing departures scheme, whereas the amendments provide an unreasonable and inflexible approach. On those grounds, I ask the Committee to reject the amendments.

Mr. Pickles: I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Amendment made: No. 6, in page 6, line 34, leave out `the person' and insert

    `all the persons'.—[Mr. Rooker.]

Mr. Pickles: I beg to move amendment No. 131, in page 6, line 45, leave out `may in prescribed circumstances' and insert

    `shall'.

The Chairman: With this we may take the following amendments: No. 132, in page 7, line 4, leave out `determines' and insert

    `is minded to determine'.

No. 133, in page 7, line 6, leave out `his determination' and insert

    `the fact that he is so minded'.

No. 134, in page 7, line 12, at end insert—

    `(8) The persons mentioned in subsection (7) above shall, in a manner to be prescribed, be afforded the opportunity to make representations to the Secretary of State as to whether the non-resident parent has failed to comply with a regular payments condition.

    (9) Before making a determination as to whether the non-resident parent has failed to comply with a regular payments condition, the Secretary of State shall have regard to any such representations as are made to him pursuant to subsection (8).'.

Mr. Pickles: You must be wondering what is happening, Mr. Cunningham. We have had some lively debates, but we broadly agree with the Government's proposals. I am aware that the Committee wishes to make progress, so I shall restrict my comments narrowly to the amendments, which are probing amendments.

The purpose of the amendments is to give all parties, especially non-resident parents, the right to make representations to the Secretary of State, who has an otherwise unfettered discretion to determine whether a regular payments condition has not been complied with and, therefore, to decide whether an application for variation should not be considered.

The Minister of State, Department of Social Security (Mr. Jeff Rooker): You have arrived, Mr. Cunningham, for the most rumbustious debates that we have had in Committee—my little joke.

Mr. Pickles: It was nearly funny.

Mr. Rooker: I am sure that the debate will hot up. We want to make progress, so I shall respond briefly to the amendments.

It has always been our intention that the Secretary of State should, as now, make appropriate inquiries before determining whether the regular payments condition has not been met. The Bill takes a reasonable approach. In practice, the payments will be made through the Secretary of State. Only he will have first-hand knowledge of whether appropriate payments have been made regularly. We intend him to pursue non-compliance only with the non-resident parent, and he will exercise appropriate flexibility in considering the issue. For example, it may be unreasonable to require full and timely payment of the amounts due. There must be scope to take account of the reasons why some payments are unavoidably late, which may happen because a person is ill or because the bank slips up with a direct debit.

The Bill is intended to suspend progress on the variation application if the Secretary of State determines that the non-resident parent has failed without good reason to make appropriate payments. In a way, our approach is that of the carrot and stick. If people are acting reasonably and are seen to be doing so, there should be no difficulty. As I said, we intend the Secretary of State to act reasonably. All parties affected by the variation application will be notified in writing when proposals for change are made. Similar provisions exist in current legislation and apply under the departures procedure. To that extent, the Bill does not make a major change.

We want to build safeguards into the Bill, but it is a question of encouraging people's behaviour to be reasonable in the round. I hope that my remarks will be sufficient to persuade the Opposition that we are not making a major change and that we are seeking to operate constructively and with cross-party support.

 
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